Tag: Basque (page 1 of 25)

February 16, 2015: First edition of rare Basque manuscript discovered

Cover of Dotrina christiana (first edition, 1617), by Esteve Materra. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On February 16, 2015 it was announced that a unique first edition of Esteve Materra’s Doctrina Christiana (Christian Doctrine, Bordeaux, 1617) had been discovered in the Royal Library, Copenhagen, Denmark. The discovery was made by the Aziti Bihia linguists’ and philologists’ association, a group of doctoral students at the University of the Basque Country whose interests lay predominantly in historical linguistics linked to Basque philology. The young people involved in the find were Borja Ariztimuño, Dorota Krajewska, Urtzi Reguero, Ekaitz Santazilia, Oxel Uribe-Etxeberria, and Eneko Zuloaga.

Flyer to promote the official announcement of the find, February 16, 2015. From the Aziti Bihia website.

Doctrina Christiana was one of the first ever books published in Euskara, the Basque language, and is written in classical Lapurdian. Its author, Esteve Materra (or possibly Materre), was a Franciscan monk and abbot of the La Réole monastery in southwestern France when the book was first published, although by the time it went to a second edition (1623) he had moved to the Franciscan monastery in Toulouse. Although not a native Basque-speaker, Materra spent some time in Sara, Lapurdi, where he had been sent at the height of the Counter Reformation to bolster the rearguard action of the Roman Catholic Church, including in its Inquisition policy. In barely twelve months in the Basque Country he learned Basque, although the very clarity and perfection of the text makes the members of Aziti Bihia suspect that he may have received help in writing it. Masterra himself notes in the prologue to the book that he was aided by Axular. Pedro Axular (1556-1664) was the parish priest of Sara and author of the first great literary text in Basque, Guero (1643). Whatever the case, the book is an important work when it comes to understanding the historical development of written Basque.

The first edition of the work is relatively simple in appearance, as if written for children or young people, in question and answer style; by the second edition, however, an additional section had been added, specifically for seafarers, and the work as a whole was more serious in tone and longer. This is important because originally the Aziti Bihia group had been working on transcribing the second edition of 1623, a copy of which is housed in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, before stumbling across a reference to the earlier edition in Denmark.

For more information on the text itself (including transcriptions) click here at the Aziti Bihia website.

 

Basque phrases for Valentine’s Day

If you’ve ever watched Vaya Semanita or are familiar with Basque Country stereotypes, you may have heard that it’s impossible to ligar, or hook up… basically to find your own valentine. But we’ve got some tips for you, our loyal readers. Here are a few phrases and words in Basque to flirt or perhaps pay a loved one a compliment, gozatu!

  • maitea/maitia : my love
  • laztana : darling
  • bihotza : my heart
  • Nire bihotzeko laztana : The darling of my heart
  • Nire bihotzeko azukre koxkorra : The sugar lump of my heart
  • jatorra : nice
  • alaia : happy
  • baikorra : positive
  • (oso/asko) Maite zaitut :  I love you (a lot)

Neskentzat/For girls:

  • polita/panpox : pretty
  • Ze neska puxka : What a girl!

Mutilentzat/For boys:

  • zangarra : darling, brave
  • dotorea : handsome
  • prestua : nice
  • kementsua/ausarta : brave
  • indartsua : strong
  • trebea : skilled
  • Hau mutil katxarroa : What a guy

Piropoak or Losintxak/Compliments

  • Txora-txora eginda naukazu : You drive me crazy
  • Gatza bera ere gozatuko zenuke : You’d make salt sweet
  • Zure begiek mintzen naute : Your eyes hurt me (but in the sense that they’re so beautiful)
  • Zu zara nire saltzaren perrexila : You are the parsley to my sauce
  • Hi haiz nire bihotzak behar duen taupada : You are the beat my heart needs
  • Egun ilunenak arigtzen dituen distira zara : You are the brightness that lights dark days
  • Zu zara nire neguko berogailua : You are my winter heater
  • Ni pirata eta zu nire altxorra : I’m a pirate and you’re my treasure
  • Hain begi politak dituzu… non… non… originaltasuna agortu zaidan : What beautiful eyes you have…um…um… my originality finishes there
  • Zu etxerako : You, with me for my house!
  • Harrapatuz gero : If I catch you…
  • Zu ogia bazina eta ni tomatea, hori ogitarteko ederra : If you were bread and me a tomato, that would be a great sandwich!
  • Bizitza zu gabe afari bat ardo ona gabe bezalakoa da : Life without you is like dinner without a good wine
  • Egunsenti guztiak zu bezain ederrak balira, goiz esnatuko nitzateke egunero : If every dawn was as beautiful/handsome as you, I’d want to wake up early every day
  • Haritz zaharren modura sustrai sendoak dituzu nere bihotzean : Like the old oaks your roots reach deep down into my heart
  • Ai zelako irriparra, hura da nire iparra, gidatzen nauen izarra! Oh what a smile, he/she’s my north, the star that guides me!

Now for some Vaya Semanita humor, sorry it’s in Spanish!

February 7, 1842: A controversial marriage, or two

A pandero-jotzaile (tambourine player) and txistulariak (pipe players) lead a traditional Basque wedding procession. Marriage was a key social and economic event because it signified that those joined in union would become the etxekoandre and etxekojaun, the mistress and master of a baserri or farmstead; in sum, the sole proprietors of the central socioeconomic unit of Basque culture and life. Whoever was marrying into the property, man or woman, would bring with them certain possessions: material goods, animals, and even land. Hence the all important wedding procession, typically headed by an ox-drawn cart, which showed off these worldly goods.

On February 7, 1842 Jean Bonepelts married Marie Etxeberri, of the Behorlegi baserri (farmstead) in the Ondarrola district of Arnegi, Lower Navarre. Not untypically in such border areas of the Basque Country, although administratively Ondarrola was part of Arnegi (Arnéguy) and therefore subject to French civil law, in church matters it was part of the neighboring town of Luzaide (Valcarlos) in Navarre. However, the couple were married in the parish church of Arnegi by Father Jean Baptiste Errecart. Again not untypically, the couple were blood relations, on two levels, within the third and fourth degrees of consanguinity. Accordingly, they had been obliged to seek church permission prior to getting married, which they did from the Bishop of Baiona in Lapurdi. However, when word reached the curia (church council) in Pamplona-Iruñea, which as noted had religious jurisdiction over the district of Ondarrola, a formal complaint was lodged with the bishopric of Baiona and, receiving no response to its protest, it declared that, “the wrongly married couple should separate and make up for the error committed.”

That same year, on May 17, there was another marriage between two residents of Ondarrola, Jean Etxeberri and Catalina Caminondo, which also took place in the parish church of Arnegi. This time, the church authorities took stricter measures, with the Bishop of Pamplona-Iruñea excommunicating both couples and prohibiting entry into any church for their respective parents while “their children should remain in that state of concubinage.” In the end, both marriages had to be held again, this time in Luzaide and with the blessing of the Bishop of Pamplona-Iruñea. Etxeberri  and Caminondo went through the nuptial ceremony again in June 1843 while Bonepelts and Etxeberri did so once more much later, in April 1845. Only following these “second” marriages was the excommunication order withdrawn.

Information sourced from Iñaki Egaña, Mil noticias insólitas del país de los vascos (Tafalla: Txalaparta, 2001), p.185.

With respect to traditional Basque marriage customs, Philippe Veyrin’s wonderful The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre is worth quoting at some length (pp. 328-29):

Once the date of the wedding has been fixed (usually a Tuesday), everyone proceeds, a few days beforehand (generally two), to perform what is called hatüka. This is a matter of transporting to the house where the future couple will live the furniture and the trousseau brought by the newly arrived spouse, male or female. The father leads the first wagon harnessed with oxen in full livery: bells, thick fleeces to conceal the yoke, cloth mantles with wide blue or red stripes embroidered with giant initials. The artfully arranged trousseau is covered with a counterpane with a cushion on top. On a chair tied behind the wagon are placed clogs decorated with copper nails in the shape of an ace of hearts or of spades; there are also a broom, a pick-axe, and a rake. Previously, in the case of the bride, the distaff, the spindles, and the reels were prominently displayed, and these symbolic objects were often finely carved and decorated. On other wagons, more or less numerous depending on the wealth of the bridegroom, pride of place was given to the mattresses and the furnishings, all displayed to their greatest advantage. The seamstress and the joiner, the authors of all these treasures, formed part of the procession; it was they who, on arrival, arranged the bedroom of the newlyweds. Often in the same parade, but sometimes separately, the godfather led a magnificent plump sheep with ribbons and gilded horns to be eaten at the wedding feast—escorted by a whole crowd of ewes with tinkling bells, the tzintzarrada. Not long ago, the procession also included several girls carrying on their heads big baskets furnished with napkins and filled with chicken, loaves of bread, bottles of wine and liqueur, big “spit-baked cakes” decorated with flowers , and so on—all food provided by the guests themselves. A good meal is of course given to all these visitors, and it can be said that the wedding really begins on that day. Two days later, everyone gathers at the square once more: the best men will go to fetch the bride, who gives each of them a fine cambric handkerchief. And, to the sound of a merry zinkha or irrintzina, everyone jostles and bustles to the town hall, and then, with more ceremony, to the church.

A few superstitions, now vanished, used to be in evidence at the nuptial blessing. This was supposed to have the power to sanctify the clothes worn on that particular day; so the bride would apparently cover herself in several dresses, one on top of the other—later, these would be very useful for her, affording her long-term shelter from spells. On his side, if the bridegroom feared the evil spell known as esteka, “physical deficiency,” he had to keep a fold of his future wife’s dress on his knees during the mass.

In several villages, there is a touching custom: after the wedding mass, the newlyweds, slipping away for a few moments from their entourage, go alone to the cemetery and pray at the tomb of the house that they will perpetuate. Husband or wife—whichever of the couple was until then a stranger to the estate—is thus, so to speak, solemnly associated on that day with the cult of the dead of the new family.

 

Veteran bertsolari Jon Azpillaga passes away

Jon Azpillaga Urrutia, one of the towering figures–both literally and metaphorically–of contemporary bertsolaritza (Basque poetic oral improvisation) passed away last Thursday, February 2, at the age of 81.

He was born in Pasaia, Gipuzkoa, in 1935, where his father Juan–originally from Ondarroa, Bizkaia–worked in the port. His mother, Veronica Urrutia, was originally from the Torre baserri (farmstead) in Berriatu, Bizkaia. After his father was killed in the Spanish Civil War, when he was barely a year and a half, the family moved back to the baserri in Berriatu. Azpillaga grew up on that baserri, which in total provided a home for 16 people, carrying out the obligatory farm chores.  At age 14 he began earning a living for himself away from home, in a boatyard in Ondarroa, cycling to and from work everyday.  After completing the obligatory Spanish military service, he eventually started his own repair business, alongside his brother and some other partners, in his mid-20s. Now living in Ondarroa, he also joined the local choir as a tenor. He married Maria Arrizabalaga Itsasmendi in 1960 and the couple moved to neighboring Mutriku, Gipuzkoa, where she owned a hair salon. And the couple eventually had 6 children.

By this time, too Azpillaga was already an accomplished bertsolari (versifier), making the final of the national championship in 1960 and 1962 and winning the Bizkaia championship in 1961. He had been somewhat of a child prodigy in this respect, reciting popular verses by heart at age 10. And he had performed his first spontaneous bertsoak (verses) in public, at the village fiestas of Amoroto in 1950 alongside another young bertsolari, Joan Mugartegi Iriondo (b. Berriatu, 1933). After winning the 1961 championship, he went on to perform throughout the 1960s and 1970s, especially in tandem with Jon Lopategi (b. Muxika, Bizkaia, in 1934). These performances, in what has been classified by expert Joxerra Garzia in Voicing the Moment as the “bertsolaritza of resistance” (toward the Franco dictatorship), were framed–where possible–with political references. Indeed, both had on several occasions been detained by the police for the political references they had made when performing bertsolaritza. He continued to take part in championships through the 1980s, reaching the fibal of the national champiosnhips in 1980 and 1982. And in 2000, on the fiftieth anniversary of his first public performance, he appeared once more alongside Mugartegi, just as he had done all those years ago, performing to a crowd of people from the balcony of the Amoroto town hall. Check out the video below of Azpillaga’s last public performance, on July 20, 2013, in Zarautz in honor of the great bertsolari Basarri:

Azpillaga dedicated a lot of his free time in Mutriku to fundraising for the ikastola or Basque-language school and establishing a bertso eskola (a bertso school) there to train young people in the art. The Church was an important part of his life and he even recited the Sermon on the Mount in verse. He also attended the annual July 4 church service and celebration held in honor of Saint Balentin Berriotxoa, one of the two patron saints of Bizkaia (alongside Saint Ignatius Loiola) in Elorrio.  On a personal level, he was always noted as a calm, composed, and fearless bertsolari with a great towering physical presence and a classic exponent of the bertso postura (stance). This all meant that he was invariably asked to begin any bertso session, hence the epithet “Hasi Azpillaga!” (Take it away Azpillaga!), which was also the tile of a free-to-download 2001 biography about him by Mikel Aizpurua.

Goian bego.

Further reading:

Jon Azpillaga Urrutia, at the online Auñamendi Eusko Entziklopedia.

Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika, free to download here.

January 30, 1669: Irun and Hondarribia almost go to war over weights and measures!

Overview of the siege of the fortress of Hondarribia in 1638 with ground troops and French squadron at sea. German engraving. Irun can be seen to the top left of the engraving. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On January 30, 1669, following a traditional custom, the neighboring town councils of Irun and Hondarribia in Gipuzkoa were due to meet to undertake their annual inspection of each other’s weights and measures in this commercially important and geopolitically sensitive border area. That year, however, the Irun council members informed their counterparts in Hondarribia that the visiting inspection had already been carried out. Not deterred by this, the Hondarribia council members swore to attend the planned visit. When they arrived, the representatives of Irun greeted them with a show of arms, which prompted those of Hondarribia to withdraw back to their own town. The latter then complained to he Provincial Council of Gipuzkoa, which mediated between the two, rescheduling the meeting for February 7.

View of Hondarribia. Painting by Luis Paret, 1786. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

February 7 arrived and the appointed Hondarribia commissioners began their inspection of Irun’s weights and measures, only to discover that the Hondarribia stamps there had been removed from the weights in question, with the name of Irun replacing them. On reporting this to the authorities, these weights were declared legally null and void. This provoked the ire of the people of Irun, leading to many taking to street with sticks, stones, swords, and firearms in protest. Worried that this could escalate into a full-blown violent conflict between the towns, the chief magistrate had no option but to restore the legal status of Irun’s weights.

Furious at the decision, the people of Hondarribia waited a few days and then sent a nocturnal expedition to attack Irun. Arriving at night in small barges traveling up the River Bidasoa, the expedition alighted near the Irun hospital, made its presence known by firing several shots and threatening the people there, an then withdrew back to the safety of Hondarribia. Thereafter, the Provincial Council made another attempt to mediate but this was in vain. The matter was then referred to the higher authority of the Castilian Royal Council, which subsequently threatened anyone who dared take up arms again in the matter with prison or even worse, namely the infamous galleys (where prisoners were sentenced o “work the oar” or become human chattel, virtual slaves). The warning appeared to work as no further incidents were reported, although neighborly relations can hardly have been too friendly!

Information sourced from Iñaki Egaña, Mil noticias insólitas del país de los vascos (Tafalla: Txalaparta, 2001), pp.126-27.

New online archive launched to preserve memory of Civil War in Bizkaia

On Friday, January 27, in tandem with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a day on which we remember genocide in all its forms, the cultural association Durango 1936 Kultur Elkartea launched its new website to preserve the memory of the Spanish Civil War–and especially its effects on individual people–in the Durango district of Bizkaia: the area made up of Durango itself together with the towns of Abadiño, Amorebieta-Etxano (Zornotza), Atxondo, Berriz, Elorrio, Garai, Iurreta, Izurtza, Mañaria, Otxandio, and Zaldibar. As we have mentioned in previous posts (see here and here), this area was a particularly important target for Franco’s rebel forces (with the material support of Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy) and witnessed civilian bombing on what was, to that time in European history, an unprecedented scale. It is the effects of this civilian bombing–death, injury, persecution, and exile–as well as the repression that followed that the association seeks to portray in the content of its new website.

As well as including a fascinating inventory of both primary documents and photographs, the website is also interesting for its inclusion of video interviews (in Basque and Spanish) with people who were directly affected by the war–first-hand witnesses themselves or the relatives of people who suffered during the conflict–and as such serves as an important database for preserving the memory of the civil war in this part of Bizkaia. These interviews can be accessed in four different ways: by the name of the person being interviewed, by the particular event with which the interview is concerned, by the name of the town from which the person being interviewed comes from, or by the name of a particular victim of the war. The video interviews can be accessed directly here and the list of people mentioned can be found here. Check out the sample interviews with Maite Andueza Zabaleta (Durango) and Joseba Angulo Tontorregi (Abadiño) below.

The site is still be developed but you can check it out here.  If you have a story to share about someone from the area and their experiences during the civil war, please do not hesitate to contact the association either via its contact form here, or via email at durango1936@durango1936.org.

Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre, by Xabier Irujo, looks at the case of the bombing of Gernika, but many of the book’s findings are equally applicable to the impact of the civil war on the Durango area of Bizkaia as well.

Check out, too, War, Exile, Justice, and Everyday Life, 1936-1946, edited by Sandra Ott, which takes a broader look at the impact of war, particularly on noncombatants. It should be remembered that Basques were among the refugee peoples of Europe in the aftermath of both the Spanish Civil War and World War II and many Basques lived in exile and as refugees for many years following this, including our own professor Xabier Irujo. This book is available free to download here.

 

 

The Maskarada: A Unique Basque Cultural Event

Zamalzain, the hobbyhorse/centaur, one of the striking characters in the masakarada performance. Photo by Oier Araolaza, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Yesterday, January 22, the annual maskarada begin its annual odyssey. Part drama, part dance, part poetic performance (both memorized and improvised),  and with more than a coincidental resemblance to the forthcoming carnival antics across the Basque Country, this is a cultural form unique to Xiberoa (or Zuberoa) in the far northeast of the Basque Country, in which a group of amateurs from the same area traditionally perform a form of transgressive, subversive, and parodic open-air popular theater with the declared aim of poking fun at those in authority. The traveling troupe always includes the same characters, a set group made up of ostensibly “good” and “bad” figures, although the lines do get blurred. At root, this is a tradition designed to cement community ties and one that celebrates both the Basque language and traditional music and dance. It has been practiced since at least the sixteenth century.

This year’s event is being performed by  a group of young people aged 15 to 24 from the villages of Ezpeize-Ündüreine, Ürrüstoi-Larrabile, Ainharbe, Sarrikotapea, Onizepea, and Mitikile in the Pettarra region of northern Xiberoa, and kicked off in Ezpeize itself. The maskarada is returning to this region 100 years after it was last performed here. In the video above you can see the introductory dance following the so-called fall of the first barricade.

One of the most spectacular moments in the maskarada is the godaleta(a) dantza (dance of the glass of wine), in which dancers attempt to momentarily hop on and off a glass of wine. Check out this video of dancers attempting the feat at a separate event in Donibane Lohizune, Lapurdi:

Check out, too, “The Folk Arts of the Maskarada Performance” by Kepa Fernández de Larrinoa in Voicing the Moment: Improvised Oral Poetry and Basque Tradition, edited by Samuel G. Armistead and Joseba Zulaika. In his article, Fernández de Larrinoa explains who the characters are in this performance as well as the set pattern of scenes they perform, and what all of this means within the wider context of the culture of Xiberoa.

This book is available free to download here.

 

Basques get ready for San Sebastian Day

Tomorrow, January 20, is a key date on the calendar for some Basques at least: San Sebastian Day, celebrated above all in Donostia-San Sebastián and Azpeitia, Gipuzkoa. The central event in this exuberant, 24-hour party is the danborrada, a loud and proud drum festival in which everyone who can takes part. The festival kicks off at exactly midnight on January 20 and goes on for the next 24 hours, nonstop.

In Donostia, at midnight the mayor hoists the flag of the city in Constitution Square, a central hub of the city’s old quarter that is jam-packed for the celebrations. Meanwhile, participants dressed up as cooks or in old fashioned military uniforms beat out a nonstop rhythmic (and almost deafening) sound as the city well and truly lets its hair down. With carnival season just around the corner, there is more than just a hint of he carnivalesque in all this. The origins of this unique celebration are said to date back to the military occupation of the city by Napoleon’s troops toward the end of the Peninsular War (1807-1814), when some women, whose daily chores included fetching and carrying water from public fountains, began to mock the French soldiers’ drumming by banging on their water pails. Thereafter, in the 1830s local residents began mocking the daily changing of the guard by soldiers stationed in the city. Probably in connection with the carnival season, a traditional time to mock authority, some locals began a raucous custom–like those women a generation before–of using buckets and hardware to mimic the solemnity of these daily military parades.

With time, various clubs and associations–mot famously, gastronomic societies such as the famous Gaztelube (hence the dressing up as cooks)–began to get involved in the celebrations, and this is the tradition that lasts to this day, with members of these associations taking the event very seriously indeed, practicing their drumming until the big day arrives. And even kids get involved, with school groups performing their own danborrada during the daytime on January 20. A traditional repertoire of musical compositions accompany all this drumming, most famously “The March of San Sebastian” (1861), with music by Raimundo Sarriegui (1838-1913) and lyrics by Serafin Baroja (1840-1912)

Modern Basque version 

Bagera!
gu (e)re bai
gu beti pozez, beti alai!

Sebastian bat bada zeruan
Donosti(a) bat bakarra munduan
hura da santua ta hau da herria
horra zer den gure Donostia!

Irutxuloko, Gaztelupeko
Joxemaritar zahar eta gazte
Joxemaritar zahar eta gazte
kalerik kale danborra joaz
umore ona zabaltzen hor dihoaz
Joxemari!

Gaurtandik gerora penak zokora
Festara! Dantzara!
Donostiarrei oihu egitera gatoz
pozaldiz!
Inauteriak datoz!

English translation

Here we are!
us too
we’re always happy, always cheerful!

There’s a Sebastian in the sky
one unique San Sebastián in the world
that’s the saint and this is the town
That’s what our San Sebastián is!

From Irutxulo, from Gaztelupe
The Joxemaritarras old and young
The Joxemaritarras old and young
from street to street playing the drum
there they go spreading good cheer
Joxemari!

From now on away with any hardships
Let’s party! Dance!
Shouting out to all the people of Donostia
Joyful!
The carnival is coming!

And don’t forget, the great town of Azpeitia also celebrates San Sebastian Day in its own unique way…

From sea to mountain, some beautiful aerial views of Iparralde

The pretty village of Ainhoa, Lapurdi, captured in some stunning video images below. Photo by Harrieta171, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The newspaper Sud-Ouest recently posted the following video of the bay of Donibane Lohizune/Ziburu (Saint-Jean-de-Luz/Ciboure) in winter and we liked it so much we’d  like to share it with you all. Of course, the bay of Donibane Lohizune/Ziburu is one of the most significant points on the Basque map, with its rich maritime history sprinkled with the odd exotic tale of pirates and corsairs.

This got us to thinking that there are so many great visual portraits of the Basque Country out there, so why not include a few more? Who not, indeed!? Moving inland a little, then, here are some great images, from both yesteryear and today, of the hamlet of Dantxaria and the village of Ainhoa, undoubtedly one of the most picturesque corners of our beloved Basque Country. This is borderland country between Lapurdi and Nafarroa (and between France and Spain), the Xareta region, so it once had a reputation for quite a bit of gau lana (night work) – what some people would call smuggling and others a little local entrepreneurship:

Farther east, inland into deep into mountain territory, check out this dramatic portrait of Aldude (Les Aldudes) in Baxe Nafarroa (Nafarroa Beherea, Lower Navarre), the original terrain of so many Basque sheepherders in the American West.

 

Finally we’ll head even more inland, to the Wild East of the Basque Country, the timeless, almost mythical province of Xiberoa (Zuberoa), where the people sing rather than speak Basque!

These two videos are part of a wider collection available here via Xibero Telebista.

If all of this has inspired you to delve more deeply into the wonders of Iparralde, the Northern Basque Country, then check out Philippe Veyrin’s classic The Basques of Lapurdi, Zuberoa, and Lower Navarre: Their History and Their Traditions. And see, too, our very own Sandy Ott’s The Circle of Mountains: A Basque Shepherding Community, a marvelously evocative ethnography that recounts the traditional way of life, and how people tenaciously hold onto it despite the changes taking place all around them, in a small Basque mountain community in Xiberoa.

January 9, 1844: Opera singer Julián Gayarre born

Julián Gayarre (1844-1890), the great Basque tenor. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

On January 9, 1844 Sebastián Julián Gayarre Garjón, known more popularly as just Julián Gayarre, was born into a humble family in Erronkari (Roncal), the principal nucleus of the remote valley of the same name in the far northeast of Navarre. From these humble beginnings he would go on to a have a successful career as an opera singer, gaining international renown as the greatest Italianate tenor of his generation and one of the most famous tenors of all time in the history of opera.

Leaving school at 13 he was immediately put to work as a shepherd, one of the principal means of earning a living in his natal Pyrenean surroundings. A couple of year’s later his father found him work in a notions store in Pamplona-Iruñea. It was in the capital city of Navarre that he first came across professional musicians, and he was even fired from his job for leaving the store one day to follow a band parading in the street outside. He then moved back to his native Erronkari Valley to work in a blacksmith shop in Irunberri (Urunberri in the Eastern Navarrese dialect of Basque,  Lumbier in Spanish). Sticking with the blacksmith trade he found work once more in Pamplona-Iruñea, where he relocated in 1863. Hearing him singing one day, a coworker encouraged him to apply to join the newly founded Orfeón Pamplonés, the city choir, a decision that changed his life.

His rise to fame was in many ways meteoric. Making an immediate impact on the city’s musical elite with the beautiful natural timbre of his voice, a scholarship was arranged to send him to Madrid Royal Conservatory and train properly for a career in professional music. He finished his studies in Madrid in 1868 and was awarded a grant by the Provincial Council of Navarre to continue studying his craft in Milan. Shortly after beginning his studies in Milan, he made his operatic debut in 1869 and thrilled critics with both his voice and commanding stage presence. As a result of his performances throughout Italy in the 1870s he was soon in demand in the great opera capitals of Europe, Paris and London, traveling widely across the continent as a whole as well as to Brazil and Argentina, although his home stage remained the legendary La Scala opera house in Milan.

Gayarre on his debut performance at La Scala, Milan, in 1876. Image from Mundo Gráfico 38 (July 17, 1912), page 5. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Gayarre continued to enthrall audiences across Europe with his wide repertoire, ranging from bel canto works to Wagner’s earlier music-dramas. In the words of Karlos Sánchez Ekiza, in his Basque Classical Music (free to download here): “He was noted for his intense recitals, with a voice capable of incredible range in colour and intensity, all in a clarity of textual performance and perfect diction.” Between the mid-1870s and mid-1880s he consolidated his reputation as the greatest tenor of the age., but thereafter he began to suffer a serious respiratory illness that caused his voice to deteriorate. At what would turn out to be his final performance, at the Royal Theater in Madrid on December 8, 1889, he broke down mid-performance, retiring from the stage claiming he could sing no more. Just a few weeks later, on January 2, 1890, he died in Madrid. His body was thereafter taken back to his beloved Erronkari, to be buried near the very house in which he was born.

Today the principal theater in Pamplona-Iruñea, the Gayarre Theater, bears his name, as does a prestigious biennial international competition in the city, the Julián Gayarre Singing Competition. Moreover, the house where he was born is now the Julián Gayarre Museum-House, and well worth a visit to this beautiful part of Navarre.

Just an additional point of interest to the short but intense life of Julián Gayarre, it is worth underscoring the fact that his first language was Basque, and specifically the Eastern Navarrese dialect of Basque (a dialect that was sadly lost in the twentieth century but for which efforts are being made to revive). Gayarre is reputed to have often closed his solo performances, whether in Barcelona, Madrid, Paris, or any of the numerous Italian cities he toured in, with a performance of the great Basque anthem “Gernikako arbola” (The Tree of Gernika), on which see previous post here and here. Interestingly, too, from his global travels he would write home to his family in Basque, in the Eastern Navarrese dialect, and his letters are preserved to this day as an eloquent testimony to this beautiful, but lost, dialect. The following (somewhat rakish in places) letter, written in 1884, is one such example:

Barcelona 19 Diciembre 1884

        Ene tia Juana maitia

        Eugenia sin da [etorri da] arro[nt] ongui. Quemen gaude anisco ongui guciac eta ori [berori] nola dago?

        Nain din [nahi dun] sin [rin, jin, etorri] [xin]cona [honat, hona] ichasoaren ecustra? Anisco andia da, tia Juana.

        Nai badu nic dud anisco deiru orentaco vidagearen pagateco quemengo ostatiaren pagateco. Eztu eguiten quemen ozic batrere, chaten [xaten, jaten] dugu quemen anisco ongui eta güero artan [artzen, hartzen] dugu iror nescache postretaco eta gazte eta pollit.

        Ha cer vizia! tia Juana maitia, amar urte chiquiago bagunu…

        Gorainzi guzientaco eta piyco bat nescachi pollit erroncarico guziat.

Julian.

In English:

Barcelona, December 19, 1884

My dear aunt Juana,

Eugenia arrived safely. We’re all well here, and you?

Would you like to come and see the sea? It’s enormous, aunt Juana.

If you like, I have enough money to pay for your journey and pay for your hotel here. It’s not cold at all here, we eat very well and three pretty young girls for dessert.

Heavens, what a life!  Dear aunt Juana, if we were ten years younger…

Regards to everyone and a pinch for all the pretty Erronkari girls.

Julian

For more information check out the foundation in his name here.

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